A new business model for tabletop role playing

April 25th, 2006

For the past 5 years there has been a consistent flow of posts forecasting the imminent death of the tabletop RPG market. And it is true that year over year, there has been a notable downward trend. 2004 was especially brutal, and the report on 2005 that came out in March, though not as bad as 2004, offered little in the way of hope. Some argue that the most recent decline can be attribute to the large deployments of the military — who many claim are a non-trivial percentage of the market. However, the fact remains that in its now 30 year history, despite its influence on many other game market segments, the tabletop RPG has never left its nich status.

I don’t believe the problem has to do with a lack of market interest. This market has a loyal following — just look at the average yearly spending of DMs or the 25-35 crowd. The market can grow. When presented with well designed and planned RPG campaign, I have seen hundreds of MMO players embrace tabletop style roleplaying and make it the focus of their online time. My own wife — who is about as far away as you can imagine from the role player demographic had a blast doing True Dungeons at Gencon — and wants to go back each year just for that. Admittedly both examples are antecdotle, but the key observation is for this audience of non-role players, something got their attention.

Jeff Freeman provides some excellent analysis on the industries recent decline, but I think the problem is even deeper than what he suggests; it is not simply the recent dominance of D20. I believe the problem is with an industry that has remained virtually unchanged since its inception. Dungeon and Dragons has dominated the tabletop market, and as a result, so has the business model that accompanied it. That business model is one where a the IP is controlled by a single entity, where the primary revenue is generated via rule books and core source books, and supplemental revenue is generated via sub-licensing the right to produce supplements.

The world has moved on from those early days of role playing. There are new models of business and new modes of distribution. But the RPG business model and core channels have remained the same. Its attempts to embrace the changing technology were nothing more than a poor mimic of what it did without the technogy.

Instead of going to a store to run a session, people tried to replace that with email, or chat — and now with Neverwinter Nights. Instead of printing, companies sold the same content electronically via PDF files (I think this thread is an interesting read). None of these methods had a notable impact on the market. If anything, the evolving technolgy was pulling people away.

What is required is a new model of business for tabletop RPGs. An approach I think would be succesful would be to model around the core competencies of Web 2.0 (which I have slighlty modified for the tabletop RPG model):

  1. Harnessing collective intelligence:
    Players are continuosly engaging in game playing or game planning. Provide a simple means to capture their activities in a manner that is accesible, inexpensive, and value added.
  2. Trusting users as co-developers:
    Shift away from licenced IP to community owned IP.
  3. Leveraging the long tail through customer self-service:
    Make it easy for players to add value added tools and system to the core game services and mechanics.
  4. Services, not books, with cost-effective scalability:
    This is the big change. Give the rules and source material away for free. Make that a commodity. Rather provide value added services that ensure that you have…
  5. Control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them:
    Capture everything in a single controlled database accessible via the web.
  6. A system above the level of a single game group:
    The effects of one gaming group should have the ability to impact the content of another gaming group.
  7. Lightweight user interfaces, development models, AND business models:
    The services should be built on well understood and familiar tools. The content creation pipe should be more outline oriented vs. today’s novel oriented approach.

By following the Web 2.0 model, we also open up the door to a very important thing: the Web 2.0 market. Those of us passionate about breathing new life into a genre of gaming we love dearly need to leverage the tools and modes of communication this market uses. Doing this will greatly increase our exposure and increase the accesability of our games.

Not bad for a curmudgeon, eh choombah?

Entry Filed under: Games

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  • 1. DPrentice  |  April 25th, 2006 at 9:22 am

    I’ve seen the deterioration of the market… having played role playing and interactive games since i got my first Apple][+ and Zork. This led into all the infocom games, and soon after, D&D, Bushido, GammaWorld, and all the way into college, where the games of choice were Might and Magic 4 on the Mac, and Champions, Cyberpunk and Paranoia with the gang.

    Up untill the mid 90s, we were USED to immersive interaction. Zork, and the text based games made you read, imagine, and think your way thru the games. Very similar in practice to the PnP rpgs, with the exception that they were single player, with the computer being the GM.

    As time went on, video games grew, and the generations who grew up with them learned a new style of gaming. The reading and thinking was replaced with watching and reacting.

    Why play Zork –

    You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door.
    There is a small mailbox here.

    > _

    When you could play Zelda? Or Madden?

    So what we’ve got is a generation of gamers who grew up from Candyland, to Pokemon and Mario, to Madden and Ghost Recon. Challenging, entertaining, yes. Engaging and immersive? Not a chance.

    At the same time, we’ve got the now aging generation of the PnP RPG. We’ve got Jobs, Families, and responsibilities that tend to prevent us from sitting in John’s living room for 8 hours every saturday for 6 months on a single campaign. Every other week, or once a month can sometimes be possible, but the less intensive play means that it drifts farther from our minds between sessions, and loses its own immersive factor over time.

    I STILL buy the new rulebooks, and spend hours pouring over character sheets, building characters and NPCS, and setting up a campaign idea… I buy an expansion/module or two, to see some possibilities, and gain some ideas to butcher, mishmash and create my own personalized campaign. But when the chips are down, the regular sessions just don’t seem to materialize. So I stop sinking money into it. It doesn’t feed itself.

    The rules, the games, the concepts out today are great! The writers and artists are top notch. But the crowd just isn’t making the time and putting in the effort. So a game has a much shorter lifespan on my table and the top of my mind than it did 10-15 years ago. I’ve got more money to spend on games… just less desire to sink money into them if the sessions don’t materialize.

    2 Other possible contributing factors -

    1 When we were teens, we played at school. We played at a buddy’s house, in a living room with plenty of room for 6-7 people. We played in college in a study hall that could sit 10-12 easily…with a large table. Dorm rooms were popular…since we had NO furniture… 2 bunkbeds, a coupla pillows and bean bags on the floor to recline against while we sprawled accross the floor with our Trix, Dr Pepper, Pillsbury Cookiee dough rolls, and pizza…

    Today, we live in small apartments, condos, townhomes… We have room for 6 at the dinner table, or 4 at a coffee table.
    Those with a bigger house don’t generally want 5-8 people sprawling accross their living room…(as if the children would even allow that to be a possibility…)

    Location location location! we simply don’t have the refuges we used to as teens/college students.

    2 We lack the ability to LOSE ourselves totally into a game for hours at a time. Can you go 6-8 hours without getting a text message, cell call, IM, checking your email, or reprogramming your DVR from your cell? It’s not easy. Now try getting 8 people to isolate for the time it takes to run a solid game session.

    Hell, I have problems trying to schedule dinner for 6 for someone’s birthday these days…2-3 hour committment– trying to get everyone to agree on a time and date that works for everyone’s hard. Now tell them to turn off all contact for 4, 8 or 12 hours…

    Just some points to ponder….

    How do we bring back immersive, creative, engaging role play, when we’ve been battered into gamers who want to absorb rather than contribute. We react, rather than create. We batter thru, rather than think and puzzle thru…

    Can we reverse the trend in ourselves?

    because unless we can, the trend in the PnP gaming industry will continue to spiral down… while the action rpg, MMO action/adventure game (i refuse to call ANYTHING an mmorpg these days…) genres will continue to climb steadily…

  • 2. sonjaya  |  April 28th, 2006 at 2:04 am

    Don,
    I think there are hopeful signs. You and I had great success with the events we ran in Tusken’s Bane. Once we showed people what was possible, I found many embraced it.

    So the question is how do we harness all these wizbang gagdets and technology to take the entertainment form embodied in tabletop RPGing into the next generation.

  • 3. DPrentice  |  April 28th, 2006 at 2:46 am

    I agree..we had successful events. but we really have to cater to the A.D.D. crowd. People want fun NOW. They want short term, minimal commitment and maximum benefit per minute…

    While you can have great fun in a short term gaming gratification session - (like our 1-3 hour barely interrelated sessions that most people were spectators for - altho we did our part to make them feel like participators)

    The depth of fun and payoff you get in the PnP environment was soooo much better -

    but yes…our events were leaps and bounds over the non immersive day to day mmog experience.

  • 4. sonjaya  |  April 28th, 2006 at 4:16 am

    well to give people a feel for what it was we did, I just posted on the Neutron-7 event — I also included a link to the planning document.

    BTW — have you been able to make it up to the renfair this year?

  • 5. DPrentice  |  April 28th, 2006 at 3:41 pm

    twice. not our usual every day every weekend type visits, a bit. We were kinda bummed this year…numerous factors (2nd year at new site, which as a guest is no big deal, but as a participant, has ruined the fun of the workers; one of our favorite entertainment acts not back this year; etc…) but it’s really turned into a different event for us than it used to be.

    Nowadays its more of a reason to get togethor wth our large ‘extended family’ of friends out there than it is for the event itself.

    think i’m gonna head out there this weekend, solo, leaving the fiance and family behind, so i can be drunk, obnoxious, and get into lots of trouble. That should be loads of fun!

  • 6. MetaFilter | Community We&hellip  |  May 11th, 2008 at 8:05 am

    links from Technoratinot met it’s release will be delayed… if it is released at all. A niche setting within a niche system in a hobby in decline, Delta Green is still intensely well loved by those who know about it, making them a good target for the ransom model. Willthinking outside the usual publishing business modelssave pen and paper RPGs?

  • 7. Uncertain Times&hellip  |  May 12th, 2008 at 10:57 am

    links from Technoratinot met it’s release will be delayed… if it is released at all. A niche setting within a niche system in a hobby in decline, Delta Green is still intensely well loved by those who know about it, making them a good target for the ransom model. Willthinking outside the usual publishing business modelssave pen and paper RPGs? I can see this catching on with other niche markets in the Long Tail. Delta Green has a solid core or devotees, so it’s conceivable that the folks at Pagan Publishing could utilize the

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